O Captain, My Captain: Whitman's Tribute to Lincoln

To celebrate President's Day in your English/language arts or history classroom, why not have a reading of Walt Whitman's poem "O Captain, My Captain"?  You can listen to an audio version here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/O_Captain!_My_Captain!

Written in 1865 as a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln, it's an excellent poem to not only discuss the impact of both Lincoln's presidency and death, but the metaphorical references within the poem. For example, Lincoln is the Captain of the ship (which represents the United States). The speaker in the poem passionately asks the Captain to stand and hear the bugle and shouts from the crowd, all in his honor. But sadly, he knows the Captain can't as he is "fallen cold and dead."

The speaker tells of the rough "voyage" they went through, but now it is over and "the prize we sought is won." The journey, of course, is symbolic of the civil war. Upholding the Union is the prize won. But Lincoln's shocking assassination makes the celebration bittersweet.

I offer a free download of the poem in a wordle word art print, along with a student handout and teacher's guide, here: Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain" Word Art

One way to "hook" your students or to get them to buy into poetry (or any literature) is to find popular culture references to it. If they know and realize that their favorite TV characters or celebrities appreciate/know the work, then perhaps it's not so bad after all. For this exercise,  I tell them that I understand that poetry from the 1800's can seem pointless, but there must be something to it if the creators of "Family Guy" were willing to feature it. ("Family Guy" and "The Simpsons" seem to be quite convincing, especially to the boys, who also seem to be more reluctant to embrace poetry.)

Here are some modern references to "O Captain, My Captain" (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Captain!_My_Captain!)
Full House - Uncle Jesse has difficulty reciting"O Captain, My Captain" in episode 6 of season 6.
Dead Poets Society - Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams in the 1989 movie, tells his students they can call him Mr. Keating, or if they are more daring, "Captain, My Captain."
Family Guy - In episode 2 of season 4, Brian teaches English at Chris's school and the boys perform a reading of "O Captain, My Captain" in a parody of Dead poet's Society.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fast_Times_at_Buddy_Cianci_Jr._High
How I Met Your Mother - Barney stands on his desk referencing the poem in another "Dead Poets Society" parody in episode 3 of season 5.
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